The U.S. political system today is not what the Founding Fathers had envisioned. The concentration of power, never ending expansion of the state, petty partisanship, and big money are the exactly what Benjamin Franklin warned against when he said, “Here’s a Republic. If you can keep it.” It is important to look at the amount of money spent every election cycle, whether it is for the presidency or a seat in Congress, to understand just how big the problem has become.
Dollars and Cents of Elections
Surprisingly, spending for a White House bid had been modest up until the year 2000. But everything seemingly changed 20 years ago, when former Vice President Al Gore and then-Governor George W. Bush competed in one of the most contentious electoral battles in the nation’s history.
Since then, it has become the norm for both party nominees to spend a quarter of a billion dollars – at a minimum. The record for most spending is held by former President Barack Obama, whose official campaigns spent $700 million in the 2008 and 2012 contests. This does not include the additional $100 million in political action committee (PAC) funds. You can expect even more spending during the 2020 general election.
Does Buying Votes Win Elections?
So, with all these outlays, the supposition would be that money buys elections, correct? Yes and no.
According to a study by economist Steven Levitt, the co-author of Freakonomics, when candidates double their spending and keep everything else the same, they only earn an additional percent in the popular vote. If the candidates slashed their spending in half, they only lost a percent in the popular vote.
In other words, money may not cause a candidate to win public office, but the type of candidate who appeals to voters generally raises a lot of cash.
For every candidate who supports the theory that money buys an election, you will come across numerous examples that prove the opposite, either on a presidential campaign or a Senate bid.
Linda McMahon, a former executive of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), spent $100 million on her two Senate attempts (2010 and 2012), but she lost both times by 12%. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) ran for president twice and allocated $42 million of his fortune to his primary campaign in 2008 and then his national campaign in 2012 doled out $400 million – he lost in both years. Billionaire Tom Steyer is looking to secure the Democratic nomination by spending $100 million, but he is barely registering in national polls.
Are Common Folk Barred?
How can a farmer from Nebraska become a congressman if the Republican incumbent or a Democratic challenger is spending $25 million? What about the small business owner from Washington State who wants to challenge the 30-year senator?
Indeed, there are outliers in the system, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who defeated longtime Representative Joe Crowley in the primaries by using social media and traditional field programs. For the most part, however, you need a well-funded campaign, a lot of resources and personnel, and established connections to be victorious in the current political system.